The April 2018 issue of the American Historical Review has a note by the editor, Alex Lichtenstein, explaining the journal’s process of peer review and giving a summary of the average length of time it takes an article to go from initial submission to final acceptance. It’s an interesting note, and I appreciate the editor’s transparency. I also appreciate that the journal has clearly stated in its author guidelines how many articles it receives, how many of those make it through the full review process, and how many are published. Since Kellen Funk and I published an article in the AHR earlier this year, I thought I might comment on the process of peer review, and especially the time it takes to get one’s work into circulation, from the perspective of an author.

The peer review reports from the AHR were certainly the most useful that I have received on any of my published work. The reviewers genuinely helped us develop our article to broaden its reach. They couched their suggestions in terms of enthusiasm for the article’s possibility rather than fatal flaws in its argument, which certainly made those suggestions more palatable from our perspective. Eric Nystrom, who signed his review, even ran our code and gave it a thorough review as well. I also want to note that when the article was in production the AHR staff were fabulous, and Jane Lyle did a great deal to make the visualizations successful on the web, in the PDF version, and on the printed page.

Lichtenstein writes that “our peer review process leads to a much less elitist procedure of publication selection than many people imagine.” I’m inclined to think that’s right. Digital historians often suspect that traditional historical journals are hostile to their work. Perhaps that is true in some cases, but my own experience has been that journals and editors are actually interested in digital historical scholarship if it can be framed in a way that also appeals to the historical profession more broadly. And I think that the AHR’s system of review is likely to give such articles a fair shake.

The process of peer review, however, did take a long time. Lichtenstein sums up the time to acceptance for articles published between 2015 and 2017:

Of the remaining thirty-seven articles, the elapsed time between submission and final acceptance ranged between 408 and 1,259 days: the average time was 740 days, and the median was 701 days. (We have little backlog, so delay between acceptance and publication is not significant.) … While this typical duration of about two years is longer than I would like—a median closer to 500 days would be optimal, in my view—I do not think it is so bad in light of the elaborate procedures described above.

Frankly, I find those figures staggering. I’m sympathetic to the difficulties of getting peer reviewers and the other considerations that the editor mentions. But an average period of two years from submission to acceptance (let alone the further delay for publication) strikes me as a real problem for getting ideas into circulation and for carrying on scholarly conversations.

Let me compare those averages with a table detailing how long it took our article to go through each step in the AHR’s process. (Our 2018 article was not included in Lichtenstein’s calculations, since he counted articles published in 2015–2017.) The column “days elapsed” shows how long that step took from the previous. The “author elapsed” and “journal elapsed” columns are a running total of how long the article was in each party’s hands.

StepDateDays elapsedAuthor elapsedJournal elapsedTotal elapsed
Article submittedJuly 28, 20160000
Sent to editorial boardAug. 25, 20162802828
Sent to external reviewersOct. 6, 20164207070
Accepted pending revisionsMarch 10, 20171550225225
Revised article resubmittedJune 11, 20179393225318
Article acceptedJuly 12, 20173193256349
Final version submittedNov. 15, 2017126219256475
Article publishedFeb. 1, 201878219334553

To sum up, after we submitted the article, the journal took 225 days for editorial and external peer review, after which it was accepted pending minor revisions. We took 93 days to make the required changes, and the article was accepted. At that point we were assigned to the February 2018 issue and given a November deadline to make any other changes we wished. Sending it in earlier at that point wouldn’t have gotten the article published any faster.

In other words, we went from submission to acceptance in 349 days, well below the 408 day minimum for the articles that the editor counted, and less than half of the average for those articles. Relative to the figures that the editor reports, we sped through.

But in absolute terms, the article a very long time to publish. The time from submission to publication took 553 days, or 18 months. Without minimizing the contributions the AHR editors and reviewers made, the article as published was better, but its argument was substantially the same as the article we submitted.

I don’t see how a lag from submission to publication of a minimum of a year and half—and quite likely of three years—can be good for scholarship. It is clear that no effort will be made to speed up the publication process for the AHR, since Lichtenstein writes, “Whatever other changes might be in the offing during my editorship, a revamping of the peer review process for our refereed articles is not one of them.” Nor do I think that the AHR is that far out the norm for humanities journals in terms of time to publication.

Nevertheless, I want to make two suggestions that I think could speed up the delay from completing an article to getting it into circulation among scholars.

The first suggestion is to give peer reviewers shorter deadlines. I don’t have any hard figures, but from my own experience as a referee, humanities journals tend to give scholars two or even three months to complete a peer review. To be honest, when I get a review deadline that is three months out, I start it about a week before the review is due. There are just too many other things to do to get a review back months early. But when I review software or software papers, I am typically given a deadline that is two or three weeks away—and start the review about a week before it is due. Whether the deadline is three weeks or three months, some reviwers will be late, and some will never finish the review. But with a shorter deadline, there isn’t a guaranteed delay of several months before problems crop up. (The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, for example, requests reviews within in two weeks.)

The second suggestion is that authors should post preprints at the earliest possible opportunity. Oxford University Press, the publisher of the AHR, has a fairly reasonable preprint policy. In brief, authors are allowed to do whatever they like with the “author’s original version” that is initially submitted. Kellen and I posted that version to the SSRN and SocArXiv preprint servers the day that our article was accepted. That was about a year after we submitted the article, but it got the piece into circulation nearly seven months before the article was published. If we had been a little bolder, we could have posted that preprint the same day we submitted the article—a delay between submission and circulation of zero days.

Whether or not humanities journals speed up the time to publication on their end, authors can use preprints to speed up the time to circulation. In a later post, I’ll have some further thoughts about an effective preprint strategy for authors.